Breaking down my 2019 NBA Awards ballot and winners

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) guards Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) as he tries to drive to the net during second half NBA Eastern Conference finals playoff basketball action in Milwaukee on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Just when you thought there would be enough of a lull in the NBA schedule to catch a breath — between the thrill of the Toronto Raptors‘ championship run, and celebrations that followed, last week’s draft, the beginning of free agency this coming Sunday and a torrential downpour of rumours regarding the future of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and others — the league brings you its annual awards show on Monday night honouring the regular season achievements from around the Association.

Because I know everybody has been wondering aloud, here’s a look at my ballot ahead of tonight’s festivities:

Most Valuable Player

The nominees: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George.

Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Harden’s historic offensive tear is hard to ignore and put him in a class by himself when it came to scoring this season. His 36.1 points per game was not only the most since Michael Jordan in 1986-87, but also more than eight points higher than any other player this year (George was second at 28 points per game), which is the largest scoring margin since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63. Stunning.

Yet no single player this season affected his team more positively and contributed to wins quite like Antetokounmpo, who simply did it all amid a breakout season that saw him carry Milwaukee to the NBA’s best record. Offensively, he was the most destructive and unstoppable player at the rim since Shaquille O’Neal was bringing down baskets in his prime, while on the other end of the floor he was a five-position defender.

He posted career-highs in scoring (27.7 ppg), rebounding (12.5 rpg), and assists (5.9 apg), while averaging 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game and shooting a white-hot 58 per cent from the floor in an all-around dominant — and MVP worthy — 2018-19 campaign.

Without further ado, here’s 15-straight minutes of The Alphabet doing damage in every conceivable way:

Rookie of the Year

The nominees: Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young

Winner: Luka Doncic.

Doncic has seemingly had this one wrapped up since the first week of the season when it was readily apparent the Dallas Mavericks’ phenom was several stages more advanced than your typical rookie.

Part of that can be explained by his time spent playing amongst grown men as a teenager in the Euroleague, but I prefer to chalk it up to an extremely rare and gifted talent. At 19 years old, Doncic quickly emerged as the Mavs’ on-court leader and his varied offensive skills left the rest of the NBA more or less powerless to stop him.

Whether it’s torching opponents from deep, finding teammates with deft passes, or using his arsenal of deliberate dribble moves to create space and get to the basket, Doncic was a joy to watch.

Young made a legitimate surge after the all-star break, establishing himself already as one of the game’s best shooters and playmakers, and made what was once considered a runaway into something closer to a coin toss, but Doncic still gets the nod. It’s hard to imagine a rookie stepping onto an NBA court and taking over with the consistency and confidence that the Slovenian teen did.

Here he is absolutely carving up the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors:

Sixth Man of the Year

The nominees: Montrezl Harrell, Domantas Sabonis, Lou Williams

Winner: Lou Williams

All extremely worthy candidates — Harrell and Sabonis would be worthy Most Improved candidates as well — but my vote goes to LouWill, who has perfected the role of the sixth man, infusing the Clippers with a sizeable burst of scoring and energy off the bench all season.

Williams changed L.A.’s dynamic dramatically the moment he stepped onto the court. With Harrell, he orchestrated a lethal pick-and-roll combo that put defences on skates and, most importantly, was his team’s go-to scorer and a wildly clutch shot-maker for a Clippers team that surprised many by qualifying for the playoffs.

Once Tobias Harris was traded to the 76ers, Williams established himself as the Clips’ scoring leader, averaging a clean 20 points per game while coming off the bench for all but one game last season.

Defensive Player of the Year

The nominees: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Rudy Gobert

Winner: Rudy Gobert

We’ve covered Antetokounmpo’s effectiveness, and George was a stellar defender who tailed off just slightly at season’s end due to a shoulder injury, but Gobert, the NBA’s premier rim protector, gets the nod here.

There is no player who discourages offensive players around the rim quite like Gobert and forces opponents to often drastically alter their game plans due to his presence down low.

He ranked 2nd in the league in win shares — higher than third-place Antetkounmpo — to give an indication of the degree to which Gobert contributed to Utah’s success last season en route to averages of 13 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

Most Improved Player

The nominees: D’Angelo Russell, De’Aaron Fox, Pascal Siakam

Winner: Pascal Siakam

Russell took a significant leap forward and became an on-court leader, crunch-time scorer and creator for a surprising Brooklyn Nets team and is worthy competition in a two-horse race between he and Siakam (Fox, a sophomore, took the natural leaps you’d hope from the fifth-overall pick).

But Siakam is the clear winner for defying expectations and transforming himself into not only an improved player but a consistent second-option on the East’s second-seed team (hard as it is, we have to ignore the fact that he was instrumental in helping his team win a title in the post-season). His statistics took a monumental spike, while he went from a player projected to be a potent role player heading into the season to a bona fide star that left opponents speechless night after night.

Coach of the Year

The nominees: Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), Mike Malone (Nuggets), Doc Rivers (Clippers)

Winner: Budenholzer

Yes, he was soundly outreached in the East Finals against Nick Nurse and the Raptors, but this is a regular season award, and in the regular season Budenholzer is a worthy winner for his role in transforming the Bucks into the NBA’s best regular season team.

What stands out about Milwaukee’s turnaround (44 wins in ’17-18, to 60 wins in ’18-19) is that it happened with essentially the same roster, but Budenholzer maximized their three-point attack — including the way he utilized newcomer Brook Lopez — and really helped spread the floor with shooters and allowed for Antetokounmpo to play in more space and exploit defences.

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